- Piers Morgan has developed a reputation as “Teflon Piers” for surviving a long trail of scandals.
- He’s been fired, censured, investigated, rebuked by a judge and questioned by police.
- He left “Good Morning Britain” after facing criticism for his Meghan Markle comments.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
In the summer of 2015, shortly after his 50th birthday, Piers Morgan held a party of breathtaking extravagance for 300 guests in the grounds of his country home, close to the village where he grew up in East Sussex, south of London.
The theme was The Great Gatsby. There was caviar, lobster, truffles and endless cocktails, served by waiters in period costume. Female guests came as flappers and men wore tuxedos or blazers. They brought wine as gifts and Rupert Murdoch, one of Morgan’s mentors, sent a case from his personal vineyard. In Morgan’s indoor pool synchronized swimmers performed an homage to Busby Berkeley, while a tuba player blew fire from his instrument. The host, inevitably, was dressed in a white suit and yellow tie in imitation of Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Jay Gatsby.
Ever the showman, Morgan’s ebullience disguised the fact that he had returned to the United Kingdom in despondency after being dropped by CNN, following a collapse in ratings at his talkshow “Piers Morgan Live.”
He is the most famous figure in British media and yet behind him is a trail of scandals and screw-ups stretching back 25 years. He has been ignominiously fired, censured by regulators, investigated by government authorities, rebuked by a judge and questioned by police.
Many of these episodes could might have been career-ending for another media figure. “He will always make spectacular cock-ups but he’s like a rubber ball, he bounces back it seems from almost everything,” says Bill Hagerty, editor of the British Journalism Review. Months after the Gatsby party, Morgan was re-established on television as co-host of ITV’s Good Morning Britain, successfully taking on the BBC with his opinionated, self-aggrandising presenting style.
That job ended last week when he stormed off set following an angry exchange with his weather anchor, Alex Beresford, who objected to Morgan’s long-running campaign “to trash” Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex. Morgan noisily refuses to believe her claims of feeling suicidal over race-baiting reporting by British tabloids or accept that he has contributed to the British media’s racist campaign against her. Told by his bosses at ITV to apologise, he quit.
His stance on Markle has been heavily criticised, especially by younger people on social media. But his decision to “fall on my sword for an honestly-held opinion” has found favour with many of his supporters in the media. In October, Morgan published a book that was described as “a cherry-picked attack on woke culture.”
Morgan is enraged by his broken friendship with Markle who, by Morgan’s telling, exchanged messages with him on social media and met him for a drink at his London pub. But she has snubbed him since dating Prince Harry, apparently, because the actor won’t abide by the unwritten rules of a media networking game he has played all his career. “He is really loyal,” says Eleanor Mills, former editor of the (London) Sunday Times Magazine. “I think that’s why he was outraged that he tried to be nice to Meghan and she chucked it in his face because that’s not part of Piers’s code.” Morgan “does rely on personal relationships very much,” says Matt Kelly, CEO of The New European and a former newspaper colleague of the presenter. “He does bear a grudge and he doesn’t let go of that. If you offend his values of loyalty… that will never be forgiven or forgotten.”
Contacted by Insider, Morgan declined to contribute to this article. “I’d rather let everyone else have their say,” he said.
Morgan, 55, has been married twice and has four children. He began his career on the Wimbledon News in 1985 and was “insanely competitive,” according to his former colleague Rob McGibbon. The pair went on a holiday to Tenerife where they stayed with Morgan’s grandmother and played tennis. “I used to play a lot and Piers was pretty rubbish, so I made a game of it,” says McGibbon. “We played a set and he shouted and screamed and chased down every ball. He foot-faulted every serve and challenged every close line call. Before I knew it, my concentration was blown and he had won the first set. Then he refused to carry on playing. His grandmother was appalled and said: “Why do you have to behave like that, Piers? Robin is by far the better player.” He shot back: “Well, he’s not, is he – because I just won. That’s all that matters.”
He always understood the value of schmoozing. As a young gossip columnist on The Sun tabloid he proposed that he should appear in celebrity photos to boost his status. “I became the friend of the stars, a rampant egomaniac,” he recalled in 1994. “Madonna, Stallone, Bowie, Paul McCartney, hundreds of them. It was shameless, as they didn’t even know me from Adam.”
Kelvin MacKenzie, who edited The Sun and championed him, says: “Nobody had ever done that before. It was clear to me that what he had to say was far more interesting than some pop star who, if they had one more brain cell, they’d be a Keep Left sign.”
Murdoch made Morgan editor of the News of the World at 28, in charge of a paper with a 4.7 million circulation. In 1995 he ran long-lens photos of the sister-in-law of Prince Harry’s mother Diana, Princess of Wales, as she left an addiction clinic. “The young man went over the top,” decreed Murdoch, as the piece fell foul of Britain’s press regulator.
Morgan left for the Daily Mirror where he reinvigorated the paper but found himself in trouble again. Ahead of a soccer game between England and Germany, he ran a front page headline using the language of a Second World War comic: “Achtung! Surrender: For You Fritz, Ze Euro 96 Championship Is Over”. In the diplomatic fallout, Morgan apologised to the German team.
Next came the scandal of ‘City Slickers’, a share-tipping column he set up at the paper. Morgan bought £67,000 of shares in Viglen, a technology company, the day before the column tipped them as a good buy. The City Slickers authors, Anil Bhoyrul and James Hipwell, were convicted of criminality and sacked but, after a long investigation by the Department of Trade and Industry, they decided not to penalize Morgan. “He got promoted to editor-in-chief of all the Mirror newspapers and we got thrown out,” says Hipwell. “He creates these storms and the people in his wake are left to pick up the pieces.”
The scandal was covered by satirical magazine Private Eye and Morgan targeted its editor, Ian Hislop, in one of his infamous feuds. “When he goes all out it’s bonkers and when he was in charge of a tabloid it’s extraordinary, the resources you can divert onto your vendetta,” Hislop says. “I had a shoulder operation, I came out of hospital and there was a Mirror photographer there – a picture appeared saying: ‘Hislop battered by my campaign’. I thought ‘I’ve just been in hospital Piers!'”
Hislop says Mirror reporters even contacted the vicar at his village church to ask whether “Ian has confessed anything good”.
One thing Piers continues to deny is any involvement in phone-hacking, the scandal that rocked British tabloids and led to the closure of the News of the World in 2011. Morgan referred to the practice of dialling into private voicemails as early as 2001 and joked about it at parties.
Brian Cathcart, a journalism professor at Kingston University, says he believes Morgan could have stopped phone hacking before it was carried out on an industrial scale against thousands of victims. “What editors do when they know about criminality is set a team of investigators on it and make a splash. But he didn’t. On the basis of what he admits, he has behaved shamefully.”
When Morgan appeared under oath at an official inquiry into press standards, the presiding judge, Lord Justice Leveson, described as “utterly unpersuasive” his evidence that hacking didn’t take place at his Daily Mirror. He was interviewed by police under caution in 2013 but not charged.
In 2018, the Mirror publisher admitted in open court that “a number of its senior employees, including executives, editors and journalists, condoned, encouraged, or actively turned a blind eye, to the widespread culture of unlawful information-gathering activities.” Morgan told New York magazine in 2011 that he had “never hacked a phone in my life”.
In his days at the Mirror, Matt Kelly, who held senior roles during 18 years at the paper/who was the publisher for Mirror Group Digital, remembers him as an inspirational leader. “He only got angry when the newsroom was quiet and he used to march around saying ‘It’s like a fucking Norwegian bank in here!’ He wanted aggro and creative tension and argument but he also wanted it to be a fun place.”
But it all came to a crashing end in 2004, when Morgan was fired after publishing what were determined to be faked photos purporting to show Iraqi prisoners being abused by British soldiers in an army lorry during the Gulf War. As the paper’s board issued an apology over “a calculated and malicious hoax”, Morgan was frogmarched from the building, still insisting the pictures were genuine and not shot at a barracks in northern England.
But his friend Simon Cowell saw a potential TV star in Morgan’s quick-fire wit and room-filling personality. He became a judge on America’s Got Talent. Soon afterwards he made a six-year-old girl contestant cry by telling her: “You are not as good as Beyonce, you don’t look like her.” Meghan Markle isn’t the first female he’s upset. Susanna Reid, his co-host on Good Morning Britain, has also been reduced to tears. Yet Mills, a former chair of Women in Journalism and founder of Noon, a platform for women in midlife, describes him as “very warm and charming” and “actually really supportive of women.”
Morgan’s repeated lionization of Donald Trump, with whom he has been friends since he won The Celebrity Apprentice in 2008, has antagonized many in the UK. Trump describes him as a “tough hombre” and granted his kindred spirit repeated exclusives on his presidential visits to the UK, including an interview on Air Force One that was criticised as a “love-in” by some viewers.
Usually a highly-effective television interviewer, Morgan makes men cry too, including Cowell and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown after he asked them about family tragedies. His irrepressible chutzpah and headline instincts draw him to subject areas that others shy away from. Brown choked up when asked about the death of his prematurely born daughter, Jennifer, while Cowell wept as he found himself reminiscing to Morgan on the moment he phoned home with news that his group Westlife were at number one, only to be told by his mother that his father had just died.
Morgan is also unpredictable. When editor of the Daily Mirror he campaigned fervently against the Gulf War. He recently won admiration for strident criticism of politicians over their response to Covid-19. After he stunned the rest of the British media by landing a dream role at CNN, some on both sides of the pond gave him plaudits for taking on the National Rifle Association and American gun culture. He also turned against Trump in the final year of his presidency over his mishandling of the pandemic and his incitement of supporters outside the US Capitol.
Murdoch once said of Morgan that “his balls are bigger than his brains” and a long list of Morgan’s antagonists would probably attest to that. But no one assumes they have seen the last of the man they call Teflon Piers.
He still has a well-read newspaper column for the Mail on Sunday. His latest job departure coincides with the launches in the UK of two conservative television news outlets, one being set up by his former patron Rupert Murdoch. The other project, GB News, is being led by the former BBC presenter Andrew Neil, another old friend who says he would love Morgan to join him. “Piers would be a huge asset to GB News and we’ll definitely look at that.” He might even hope to emulate Meghan and Harry and cut a deal with Netflix, where he already has a popular show, Killer Women with Piers Morgan.
“When you think of all the scrapes he has been in you would think he would be pushing a broom outside Aldi’s (supermarket chain) by now,” says his former tabloid boss MacKenzie. “In fact, there will be a queue a mile long to hire him.”